Thursday, April 30, 2020

5 Reasons Our Characters Need to Fail

By Bethany Henry

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: In a novel, failure is actually a good thing. Bethany Henry shares reasons why our characters need to fail in order for us to win.

Bethany Henry writes fantasy novels and blogs about writing and wellness at When not writing, she can often be found on the frisbee field, drinking tea, or reading picture books with her two little girls. Sign up for her email list for weekly posts on writing craft- along with fun extras like quotes and freebies.

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Take it away Bethany...

Sometimes as authors we’re a bit too nice.

Bethany Henry
We give our characters tragic backstories but then give them superpowers and make them win every battle. We put them in the middle of a war zone but then make them amazingly successful and talented. Our heroes always have a witty comeback and of course they can create a plan to win the day.

When it comes down to it, we don’t want to see our characters fail.

We avoid having them do stupid things or make mistakes- even though we know that we’re supposed to make things hard for them.

However, to create strong stories, it’s essential for us to let our characters fail.

Without letting them feel the pain of failure, our characters and our stories will never be as real or as powerful as they could be otherwise.

5 Reasons Our Characters Need to Fail

1. It makes them human and real

We don’t want Mary Sue characters, characters who are so perfect they are just completely unreal. These are the heroes who always know what to do and always succeed.

No one is perfect all the time. And while we want our characters to be good enough to be likable, we also want them to be relatable.

Perfect is not relatable.

Rather, when we see characters fail, we resonate with that failure. We know what it’s like to make mistakes. We root for them to succeed and overcome their failures.

(Here's more with 5 Ways to Fix Too Perfect Characters)

2. It makes the stakes real

A story just seems contrived if our hero is able to solve their problems again and again.

The stakes of our story just aren’t believable if our heroes are never in danger of failing.

It is incredibly more interesting and believable if our characters mess things up instead of solving their problems. In fact, they can even make the problems worse.

This is when tensions really rise and the stakes get more personal.

(Here's more with 3 Rules to Raising Story Stakes)

3. It makes things interesting

Winning can’t be a given. The reader shouldn’t always know what’s going to happen next.

If our characters never fail at everything it removes a lot of the mystery because we already know they will succeed.

But if our characters might mess things up? Suddenly that makes things more interesting.

The conflict in the story doesn’t ALL have to be with the villains, either. Mistakes often increase tension between friends and allies, whether through disagreements, miscommunications, guilt, or blame.

(Here's more with 3 Reasons that “Perfectly Good Scene” is Boring Your Readers) 

4. It shows how they change

One key aspect of failure is its role in our hero’s character arc, that is the progression of change and growth a character makes throughout the story.

For example, a character who needs to learn to work with others will first fail to work well with others, and so demonstrate this flaw. In order for our heroes to overcome a personal weakness they must first struggle with it.

Creating a space for a character to fail at something is a perfect opportunity to show their faults and weaknesses that will later need to be addressed.

(Here's more with The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc and Find Your Plot)

5. It makes things personal

Failure brings with it a lot of emotion like guilt, shame, remorse, a need to fix things, self-doubt, or even denial. These emotions can then color our character’s interactions with each other and influence their future decisions, providing personal motivations for getting involved in the story’s action.

These emotions also help readers to connect with our characters, bringing us back full circle to Point 1 listed above. 

What does this failure look like?

Here are just a few examples and prompts for ways to make our characters experience failure in our stories. There are many more possibilities but this should get us thinking!
  • Misunderstanding a friend
  • Misunderstanding directions
  • Refusing help or advice
  • Misreading a situation and acting inappropriately
  • Overhearing something incorrectly
  • Trusting the wrong person
  • Mistrusting the wrong person
  • Physically failing to do something
  • Arriving too late to do something
  • Arriving too early and messing up a plan
  • Dropping something that breaks
  • Losing something important
  • Saying something wrong which ruins everything
  • Being unable to keep quiet
  • Not speaking up when they need to
  • Forgetting something important
  • Misunderstanding plot clues
  • Not trusting themselves
  • Not being willing to take a needed risk
  • Rushing into something without asking questions

It’s uncomfortable to make our characters fail. It can hurt us to write about them making dumb choices, saying stupid things that alienate their friends, or doing things they later feel guilty about.

Let’s let it be uncomfortable. Soak it in. Power through.

And then let’s put that emotion back into our story.

This is when it’s real.

This is when the stakes mean something--when our hero has already failed and no one knows whether they can do any better the second time. When they’ve offended their teammates and now need to try to ask for help. When they’ve colossally messed everything up and need to face their mistakes and learn from them.

The payoff at the end means so much more when they’ve had to overcome their own mistakes and failures in order to get there.

The story may be messy and uncomfortable when we bring failure into it. But mistakes and failure are what make it authentic and give it its greatest power.

What about you? What does failure look like in your story?

Evaluate your scenes and major plot points. Do your heroes succeed too frequently? Where can your hero mess things up? What can be misunderstood or what mistakes can be made, even when facing minor tasks?

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